Flat gardens or Hira-niwa in Japanese do not have hills and do not have any water in the way that a western garden would. The flat area which is essentially made of either sand or more usually gravel IS the water. All Japanese gardens tend to be a lesson in environment and space.
Just like in a Zen garden the gravel is raked into swirls and different shapes to give the impression of the movement in a body of water. The ground is usually covered this way and on occasions I have seen flat gardens that use very small pebbles,once again raked in circles and straight lines to give the impression of water ripples.
A flat garden can include many familiar ingredients that you would expect when making a Japanese garden. Stones, Rocks, Trees and Shrubs are very common.The trees although natural will be pruned and the low level shrubs and bushes shaped on the edge of the water space.
Flat gardens were first designed to interpret and in miniature mimic Japan's seaside landscapes or some of its grander lakes, a journey through Japanese garden history points to war and water shortages as to why water was replaced by gravel as a 'dry' substitute. This is a trend that has continued for hundreds of years even in peacetime and with abundant supplies of water. The Edo period of Japanese history is when flat gardens became very popular.
Interestingly water features apart from a body of water are fairly common in a Japanese 'Flat' garden. For example, large upright stones can symbolise a waterfall and this something that you can copy for a garden space that you have in mind however large or small.
Use non sharp edged rocks or stones (Granite) to depict islands within your gravel water area. 3 together is a popular representation of 'The Isles of The Immortals'.The Japanese Circle and Gourd Islands are often copied and represented in the gravel water area to add the spirit of enlightenment. You will be able to get the correct rocks and stones from your local aggregate supplier - take some time to consider the shapes that you want and strictly speaking for authenticity you should not use rounded stones.
Other ingredients that you may wish to add to a flat garden are stone lanterns, included for the illumination of parts of the garden at night, basins and if you are very ambitious even a well! Well's are normally constructed out of wood and have some way of getting the water out of the well - a pulley and bucket or a large wooden spoon are common.
Stepping stones can be placed across the gravel water area and look very effective if they lead to the far side of the gravel area where a rustic hut or pagoda is located. After the 16th century this was a popular type of design where the hut would be used for the slow and meaningful Tea ceremony.
A completed flat garden will give a real impression of depth of space to the viewer as the eye is drawn into the water area with the clipped shrubs on the faraway edge. The stones or rocks placed carefully within the raked gravel 'water' area give a feeling of depth and perspective relative to the scale of the garden.
As a Zen garden is designed to be viewed from a single space it is exactly the same with a Japanese flat garden. The view is sometimes 'framed' when a veranda door is opened or when looking through a larger window into the garden itself.
The viewer's eyes are drawn across the water to the carefully clipped low level shrubs and plants like Lilies or Azeleas. In Japan plantings are deliberately made in a flat garden to show off the seasons.
Maples for the autumn, Cherry blossom looks its best in Spring, the soothing impression of water signifies summer and something like a Black Pine denotes the winter.
Flat gardens became an alternative to hill gardens in Japan as were amongst the first residential gardens added to the homes of ordinary Japanese people and they continue to be a wonderful type of garden today for any yard or garden area.
I believe a 'Flat' or Hira-niwa garden is a cost effective and beautiful option for a domestic Japanese garden as it includes some of the essential ingredients needed for a Japanese garden as well as the classic Japanese garden design method of borrowed scenery. This is where the designer either copies a specific landscape in miniature or use existing scenery such as a hill located outside of the flat garden space to include it in the overall garden view.
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